A 60-Game Regular Season Means a Crazy-Tight NL Central Race ... Though ZiPS Puts the Cubs on Top

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A 60-Game Regular Season Means a Crazy-Tight NL Central Race … Though ZiPS Puts the Cubs on Top

Chicago Cubs

The Cubs won the division in 2017. The Brewers tied the Cubs for first place at the end of 162 games in 2018 (before winning a tie-breaker or something … I don’t really recall), and the Cardinals won the division in 2019. Meanwhile, the Reds have *clearly* been gearing up for their big corner turn here in 2020. So regardless of whose division this was supposed to be from 2016-2022, one thing is clear: even in a normal year, the NL Central would be up for grabs.

But this isn’t a normal year. There’ll be just 60 regular season games this season (hopefully, anyway), and anyone who knows anything about baseball knows that makes this race ESPECIALLY open to all.

And that’s not just my gut, that’s how the numbers actually play out:

First reaction: Cubs in first place. Hooray! That’s fun!

Second reaction: I’m going to have heart burn all season.

But before I dive deeper into those numbers, I want to remind you of the Cubs schedule this year. In short, the Cubs will play 40 games against their division rivals (10 each against the Cardinals, Brewers, Pirates, and Reds) and 20 games against their geographic AL mirrors (likely six against the White Sox, and the remainder against the Indians, Royals, Tigers, and Twins).

According to 2019 records, that gives the Cubs the third *easiest* schedule in the National League this season, behind only the Brewers and Cardinals:

These figures for the Cubs, Brewers, and Cardinals are the result of not having to face the Dodgers, Braves, or Nationals, for example, as well as a disappointingly  bad season from the Cubs in 2019 (had they played up to expectations, the Brewers and Cardinals would have a relatively tougher SOS in 2020).

By contrast, and looking forward to expected performance, Dan Szymborski projects the NL Central strength of schedule thusly:

1. Pirates: .504
2. Reds: .493
3. Cardinals: .492
4. Brewers: .491
5. Cubs .489

As you can imagine, with such similar schedules, and with expected performance so similar, these figures track with the projected standings. But hey, the Cubs actually come out on top – a sign of optimism on their projected 2020 record (i.e. they’re the toughest team in their division, so everyone else is at a slight relative disadvantage). That’s the distinction between Frank’s backwards looking strength-of-schedule measurement and this set.

Now back to the projections.

The Cubs are projected to win the division … and are also projected to be one game away from a fourth place finish. They’re not exactly alone in terms of tight divisional races – the Braves and Nationals are projected to tie, while the Twins and Indians are one game apart – but no other division is nearly as close from top to bottom.

And this is actually bad news for the Cubs.

Szymborski had already projected the playoff odds back in February, just before spring training started, and back then the Cubs chances of making the postseason were actually 5.9 percentage points higher than they are today. That’s the biggest drop in the NL Central and the 10th biggest drop overall. Meanwhile, thanks to a shortened season with more games against the NL and AL Central, the Brewers (6.7%), Reds (9.4%), Cardinals (10%), and Pirates (13.0%) all got a nice bump. Bully for them.

And don’t forget about the wild card. Without playing other National League teams, the Cubs will have less agency in that battle, should first place in their own division quickly fall out of reach. But on the whole, that probably works to their benefit, as they not only face a slightly weaker AL division but also skip the very loaded NL East and West divisions.

So, I guess this is a good-news, bad-news kind of post. The Cubs are projected to win their division, thanks, in part, to one of the easiest schedules in the NL. But they’re projected to do so by just one game, as each of their division rivals have received a much larger bump to their odds of winning. Also, having four teams right there smashed together atop the standings really underscores how much anything can happen in 60 games.

Someone get me some Tums.

Author: Michael Cerami

Michael Cerami covers the Chicago Cubs, Bears, and Bulls at Bleacher Nation. You can find him on Twitter @Michael_Cerami